Quora and the big “what if”

I’m reliably informed that every day, Google serves about 3 billion searches globally. I didn’t count that myself but I’m taking it on good authority.

But what if instead, every query was saved as a unique page accompanied by hand-researched and written answers created by a community of curators?

What if questions were semantically tagged to show the most popular related queries, giving a quick idea of what’s important about a subject beyond the Wikipedia question of “what is it?”

Could something like that offer an alternative to traditional search engines?

What if instead of contributions from infighting nerds, an AOL question received an answer from the former AOL CEO or a question asking why the Facebook Places icon looks like a four in a square gets an answer from the designer?

*Spoilers* I’m talking about Quora

Quora has got a lot of people wondering about “what if”s recently and rightly so. While it’s important to always start from a position of healthy cynicism, you’ve got the imagination to consider whether there’s some substance under the hype as these tools come along. But most importantly you have to immerse yourself in them to understand the value clearly.

When people question it’s likelihood to succeed versus the likes of precursors like Yahoo Answers, the line in The Social Network springs to mind where Zuck says “if they invented Facebook, they’d have invented Facebook”. If important details made the difference we see today between Harvard Connect and Facebook, then it should be easy to see how they could again.

Some further thoughts:

  • It’s nice to see a platform where your ability to provide genuinely useful content builds your reputation rather than the faux-measures like follower numbers. Also great to see a distinction between curators and the content creators.
  • Users aren’t just forced into an environment of endorsement and instead are trusted as moderators. There’s something deeply obnoxious about the one dimensional nature of the Facebook Like button.
  • I wonder if they’ll need further semantic systems beyond tagging and how this may affect their success as linked data’s influence spreads. Could they be gazumped by someone who took that area more seriously?
  • Celebrities provided the “jump-on” point for mainstream media and users to get their heads round Twitter. Has Quora been kicking off in the tech/social/PR community because our “celebs” are on there answering questions? Will the lack of control put off celebs, delay mainstream adoption and stunt Quora’s potential?

Wikipedia’s collaborative knowledge
+  Twitter’s Retweeting endorsement system
+ Facebook’s newsfeed

= Quora

What if they pull it off?

- Max Tatton-Brown

January 7th, 2011